Shadows of Keron: A Retrospective

It’s time to call this one. Time of death: April 2014.

I have enough material to keep running the game for another year, maybe two, but with several of the group dealing with serious illness in the family, two running after a new baby, one off to university and two off to Japan, the best I can hope for is a long hiatus. All the same, it’s been fun while it lasted, and a real success. My only regret is that it petered out, rather than ending on the kind of slam-bang, white-knuckle high note I’d hoped for; but such is life.

If you count the city of Irongrave where the PCs began, which was absorbed into the Dread Sea Dominions once Beasts & Barbarians captured my imagination, this campaign has lasted about four years of real time; one of the longest I’ve ever run.

The game introduced half-a-dozen new people to role-playing, and four of them still play on a regular basis; that’s a win, right there. I converted the whole group to Savage Worlds – win – and they converted me to Shadowrun – win. I got to know Piotr Korys and Umberto Pignatelli – win.

Over the course of the campaign, the PCs have grown from their lowly beginnings at Novice rank to the edge of Legendary. They have travelled across the Dominions from the Independent Cities to the Troll Mountains to the Ivory Savannah. They have looted tombs, toppled kingdoms and slain a god. They have upset the balance of power in the Dominions for centuries to come by gifting both the Ascaian Amazons and the Smith-Priests of Hulian the secret of steel-making.

What now for our heroes?

The Warforged intends seizing control of the abandoned City of the Winged God, where he plans to create a new race of warforged and take over the world – for the greater good of all, of course. (It always starts like that, doesn’t it? Then there are dissenters, then the Blast powers and frying pans come out, and the screaming starts…)

Nessime has been instructed by the Smith-Priests to make her way to Jalizar, there to help contain its ancient evils.

Gutz’ present whereabouts are unknown; but the party’s jewels are safe with him, wherever he and Maximus the warhorse are – at least until he finds a tavern with dancing-girls…

“When it’s over, when it’s done – let it go.” – The Bangles, Let It Go

Hyperspace

"If the Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, there could be no Empire even with the Field. There’d be no Empire because belonging to an Empire wouldn’t protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of space pirates. Upward mobility in society would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate." – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Building the Mote in God’s Eye

I was going to reboot the Arioniad and move the Dark Nebula campaign forward in this post, but I got distracted by work, family stuff and travel. Lots of travel.

While driving, I’ve been thinking about hyperspace as presented in the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion, and playing my usual game: What would the setting be like if it were a 100% faithful reflection of the rules?

Page 42 of the SFC tells us the following…

  • You need a computer and a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make a jump – these are to plot a course that avoids planets and other obstacles.
  • Jumps are split into three classes: Same star system (easy, doesn’t use much fuel); same galaxy (average); different galaxy (hard, lots of fuel).
  • A jump takes no time but you arrive 2d6 days from the destination, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to arrive early, the same day if you like. At first I assumed you emerged first, then chose whether to spend the extra energy, but the rules are unclear on whether you emerge first – although it seems pretty clear that you roll before deciding whether to speed up.
  • Fuel is usually bought from spaceports.
  • You roll for supply and demand of various trade goods after deciding on the starship’s next destination.

The consensus on the SW forum is that this is more like Star Wars than anything. I’d also point to Cordwainer Smith’s space3, the later Foundation novels, and (to an extent) the Stargate franchise; effectively, hyperspace is a point rather than a plane or volume, and hyperspace travel is a condition rather than movement as such.

The Rules As Written have some interesting implications for a setting.

  • The campaign doesn’t need a map, because you can jump from any star system to any other star system directly. The PCs may have star charts, but neither the players nor the GM need them. Thus. campaigns are less likely to be sandbox games, because the players’ decisions on where to go next are less important; without chains of systems forming routes, going to planet A doesn’t commit you to visiting B before you get to C.
  • There are no choke points to defend. To my mind, this means interstellar navies behave more like modern ballistic missile submarines than "conventional" star fleets; the Federation Navy can’t mount a spirited defence at Outpost Five to stop the Imperial Navy’s fleet breaking through to nuke Earth, but they can certainly nuke the Empire’s homeworld right back. (I disagree with Niven and Pournelle here; an empire can still protect you, but it does so by deterrence.)
  • Merchant ships are probably armed. The Navy can’t protect you from pirates unless it’s right alongside every ship, every jump. Not going to happen.
  • You can’t blockade a star system. Smugglers and blockade runners can jump right past you, and if the GM allows precision jumps, the ships can go from inside one warehouse to inside another. (Jumps are probably not that precise, as if they were, you wouldn’t need ships; a big flatbed truck would be just as good, and a lot cheaper.)
  • If the GM isn’t careful, you can make an absolute killing trading. With a large enough selection of worlds, there will always be somewhere selling Fuel (the most valuable item at a base value of $2,000 per cargo space) for half price, and somewhere else desperate to buy it for five times the base price, yielding a revenue of $9,000 per cargo space per trip. This is probably why the rules state you pick your destination first, then roll for supply and demand there – notice the implication that the adventure takes the party to that planet anyway, with trade being a sideline for the players, even if it’s the PCs’ main purpose.
  • Since you typically refuel at a spaceport, travel off the beaten path is rare. Jump co-ordinates for specific worlds may be valuable prizes, or scenario McGuffins. Yes, you can jump straight to the Treasure Planet, but only if you know where it is.

I actually rather like the idea of this inferred setting; it’s fast, furious and unusual. However, the fact that it’s unusual suggests there’s a reason why games and literature generally use jump routes. So tell me, gentle readers, what have I overlooked?

Dark Nebula: Setting Inferences

“The Klingons are a proud warrior race, and have no need of fripperies such as fridge magnets.” – Bill Bailey

Having done the map, the next stage in my budding Dark Nebula campaign is to peruse the boardgame and see what I can infer from it. For this purpose I’m considering Savage Worlds, Stars Without Number, 5150 and Traveller as candidates for the rules – I expect to use all of them in this setting at some point, so I’m looking for common denominators.

TRAVELLER

Let’s start with Traveller, because the designers were writing Classic Traveller at the same time they were writing Dark Nebula and used some of the same concepts, so it should be easiest.

Jump Routes

There are only a handful of J-3 routes, and a single J-4 route.

J-1 drives would be limited to a few specific clusters of worlds; in the Solomani Confederation there is one group of four worlds and one pair, in the Aslan Hierate there is a group of three, there’s a group of six worlds between Mizah and Daanarni, and there are a few isolated pairs out in the boonies.

However, there’s only one system you can’t reach with a Jump-2 drive at the start of the game, and that’s Taida Na, which initially can only be reached from Valka using a J-4 drive. So the majority of starships would have Jump-2 drives; you really don’t need anything more, and you have severely limited movement with less. The military might have a few J-3 ships, maybe even the odd J-4, but that’s debatable.

This is somewhere that Mongoose Traveller may have an edge; in the board game, any ship can traverse any jump route; so the Mongoose warp drive variant rule might be a better fit. (And while we’re at it, given the unusually high proportion of waterless worlds, maybe the Mongoose hard SF option for world generation.)

Population

Kuzu and Maadin are both specified as homeworlds with "high populations". That term has a specific meaning in Traveller, namely a population of 9 (billions) or A (tens of billions) – looking ahead to SWN, and because I normally assign the minimum value necessary to match other evidence, I’ll go with 9. Given their status in the game, they deserve class A starports as well.

Technology

As far as technology goes, J-4 drives and battle dress for jump troops, but lack of evidence for anything higher-tech than that, place the maximum TL in the region at D (13). There’s also no need for it anywhere other than Maadin and Kuzu, so that sets their TL.

Races

The boardgame is silent on these, but familiarity with the default Traveller setting will tell you that Solomani humans and Aslan are present. In the past I’ve added droyne, ithklur, vilani and others, and may do so this time as well, but let’s see how far we can get with just the basic two for the moment.

STARS WITHOUR NUMBER

Spike-4 drives are needed to move 4 hexes in SWN, and require TL5, so we can assign a population of billions and TL 5 to the two homeworlds, which are also Regional Hegemons. Races will include humans and also hochog, renamed and described as if they were aslan – the Proud Warrior Race is such a classic SF trope that almost every game has it, and SWN is no exception.

SAVAGE WORLDS / 5150

The above topics don’t really matter in SW or 5150, and neither game needs much about them beyond a little narrative. The only problem with 5150 is that it’s not immediately obvious how to do aslan, but to start with I’ll just give them +1 Rep for being the Proud Warrior Race.

As regards Savage Worlds, I rule out High-Space at this point because it’s grounded in transhumanism, and CT/Dark Nebula aren’t, so the Sci Fi Companion is a better fit for this particular game. I make a note that natives of Maadin and Kuzu might have the High-Tech (Minor) Hindrance under the SW SFC, and that jumps are only possible along mapped routes. On the racial front, we have humans and rakashans; those are the only two races obviously needed, and the boardgame is about a war between the two, so it seems reasonable for the rakashan racial hostility to be directed at humans.

THE ARIONIAD

As usual, I’m feeling lazy, and rather than create new characters for the SW implementation of the Nebula, I’ll reactivate Arion and company, setting Gordon’s as yet undocumented civilisation in a planet-less system in the Dark Nebula itself. Daanarni becomes the aslan name for Antares, Halfway becomes the orbital station at Hasara, and I’m sure I can retcon in other stuff easily enough when I need it. The Arioniad’s riff of a loose alliance of worlds threatened by a human empire fits best with the Mizah cluster facing off against the Solomani Confederation; good luck, guys.

Savage Scoutships

The scoutship is a venerable SF stereotype; the Classic Traveller Type S, Jack Vance’s Type 9B Locator, the craft flown by Eric Frank Russell’s scouts, the Runabouts from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and so forth. If there’s a ship I know well, this is it. So it’s a good place to start from in exploring ship design. Let’s try the Type S under the SF Companion and High-Space.

SFC SCOUTSHIP

The scoutship needs to be Small, so that it can be operated by one person. That gives a base cost of $2M and 20 available Mod slots, which I’ll use up as follows:

  • Atmospheric: 3 Mods, $300K.
  • Crew Space x 2: 2 Mods, $200K. Allows for 8 crew members.
  • FTL Drive: 3 Mods, $12M.
  • Garage/Hangar: 4 Mods, $1M. Allows for one vehicle up to size 8. (Hmm. In the Rules As Written, that could be another scoutship, which in turn could have a garage with another scoutship…)

The final statblock is:

Small Starship: Acc/TS 50/700, Climb 3, Toughness 20 (5), Crew 1, Cost $15.5M.

Remaining Mods: 8 (about 27 cubic metres, or just under 2 displacement tons, Traveller-style).

Notes: Atmospheric, 2 x Crew Space, FTL Drive, Garage/Hangar.

Weapons: None.

HIGH-SPACE SCOUTSHIP

I’m using version 1-1 of the High-Space Fleet Manual for this. It should be capable of being owned by a single Novice PC, who would have one Ship Acquisition Point, giving the ship 3 points of Traits and 3 free Edges.

The initial attributes are Manoeuvre d4, Computer d4, FTL d4, Displacement d4 and Quality d4. I select the Explorer design edge (which doesn’t count against the basic three from AP), gaining +1 FTL die-type and +1 Pace, then go back and allocate the three Trait points to Manoeuvre, Displacement, and Quality, boosting them to d6 each. The Explorer design edge also gives it 2 payloads per displacement (12 total) and one hardpoint per displacement (6 total).

I browse through the Hindrances, but none of them seem appropriate, so move on to Edges, and select:

  • Luggage (1 payload).
  • Guest Accommodation (1 payload). This allows the ship to carry its displacement (6) in passengers. High-Space is silent on accomodation for crew members, but the table on p. 7 implies that you could have up to 4 Novice PCs pooling their points to get this ship, so since this edge is specifically for non-crew accommodation, I reckon the ship must have crew quarters for four people.

I can’t give it an air/raft hangar without boosting the Displacement to d8, so we’ll skip that. Life pods don’t feel right as an alternative.

Pace is Manoeuvre plus Quality plus one, so 9. Toughness is half the sum of Displacement and Quality, so 6. The final statblock is:

Attributes: Manoeuvre d6, Computer d4, FTL d6, Displacement d6 and Quality d6.

Pace: 9. Toughness: 6.

Edges: Explorer; Luggage, Guest Accommodation. One edge and 10 payload held in reserve for later use.

Hindrances: None.

Weapons: None.

COMPARISON AND CONCLUSIONS

The SFC ship looks like a vehicle, the High-Space one looks like a character. They both have quite a bit of room for later customisation as the PC crew advance or get richer, and either is well within the reach of a group of Novice PCs – High-Space handles that with Acquisition Points, the Companion by recommending the group should start with a Medium ship, an FTL Drive, and $2M of other Mods.

The SFC ship was definitely faster and easier to do, because the design sequence is more linear and less ambiguous; but the High-Space one was more fun.

Review: SFC vs High Space vs SF Toolkits

“Hey! Are we playing horseshoes, honey? No, I don’t think we are.
You’re close! (Close!) But no cigar!”
- Weird Al Yankovic, Close But No Cigar

This one’s for Cloud Divider, who asked how the SFC stacks up against High-Space and the old SF Toolkits… A bit like this, CD; as you can see I got carried away, and wound up with something too big for a comment.

SFC VS HIGH-SPACE

While both of these focus on the space opera subgenre of science fiction, they’re looking at different versions of it.

The Sci Fi Companion emulates the kind of space opera written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It’s good for campaigns with the look and feel of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League or Terran Empire, E C Tubb’s Dumarest saga, H Beam Piper’s Future History, Frank Herbert’s Dune series; movies like Star Wars; TV shows like Battlestar Galactica; games like Traveller, Star Frontiers, BattleTech. This is SF as Westerns-with-rayguns, and I’d say it’s closer to the original Star Wars movies than anything else in fiction.

High-Space mimics the sort of space opera written from the late 1980s onwards, by authors like Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, or Neal Asher; or games like Halo or Mass Effect. I can’t think of any movies or TV shows in this subgenre, but no doubt they exist. Transhumanism is central to the setting, with characters routinely being clones, cyborgs, AI software in robot bodies, sentient starships and what have you. For me, it resonates most with the videogame Mass Effect.

Mechanically, the main differences are these:

  • The SFC doesn’t add much as far as character creation goes; a couple of Knowledge skills, a handful of new Edges and Hindrances, and off you go. High-Space takes SW character generation and overlays careers and cultures, which for the most part give you a little character backstory and a couple of mandatory skills.
  • The SFC gives you a point-buy alien builder for making your own races. High-Space treats races as trappings for one of a half-a-dozen racial archetypes.
  • High-Space is set in a post-scarcity economy; the gear PCs have depends on their Rank rather than their available cash.
  • The SFC has a wider range of gear, especially weapons, but High-Space has a stronger focus on computers and hacking.
  • High-Space essentially treats starships as characters; in SFC, they’re just another type of vehicle. However, the rules in SFC are much easier for me to understand; I would love to use the High-Space rules as a plug-in (which incidentally they are designed for) but I found too many unanswered questions and violations of the laws of physics. Yes, I could house-rule around those, but I pay publishers for this stuff so that I don’t have to do that.
  • High-Space has a default setting, The Lantern, already specified. The SFC doesn’t.

SFC VS TOOLKITS

At the top level, the difference is one of style. The toolkits presented options (different ways to design a starship, for example), and encouraged the GM to pick one, or use them as inspiration for his own custom method; they offered advice and guidance. The Companion is more prescriptive, offering a single starship design method as the approved approach; it offers actual rules.

Things the Companion adds:

  • Nothing I’ve noticed. I could’ve missed something, mind.

Things it takes away:

  • The random alien creature generator. I get the feeling some of the actual creatures are gone too, but the page count is about the same, so maybe I’m wrong.
  • The Weird Science Edges and notes on that Arcane Background.
  • The superhero lair generator (from Necessary Evil).
  • Much of the GM’s advice on setting design.
  • I’m sure the total number of example vehicles, power armour suits etc. is lower; I haven’t checked to see if the surviving ones are new, or recycled.
  • Psionics and extra powers (which I think, but have not checked, are mostly in SWD now).
  • The notes on time travel.

Things it changes:

  • It’s aligned with Savage Worlds Deluxe rather than the earlier Explorers’ Edition. This doesn’t change much other than the chase rules.
  • Hacking and cyberspace. This is simplified, with a suggestion to use Interface Zero if you want more complexity.

MY PREFERENCE

Of the three – High-Space, the SF toolkits, or the Sci Fi Companion – I prefer the Companion, for these reasons:

  • It’s easier for me to understand and explain to players. High-Space is unclear to me in places, and the toolkits offer too many options.
  • It’s a single, tightly-integrated book. Both of the other options are composed of three books, and the toolkits by their nature are not such a cohesive whole.
  • It’s closest to the type of game I like to run best, no doubt due to a youth misspent reading Poul Anderson and E C Tubb, and playing Classic Traveller.

Is there anything that makes the Companion a “must-have”? That depends on what you want. In my case, I like it for the vehicle and ship design rules, but I could (and have) run SF games without it. My usual rule of thumb is that if I’m still using it on a regular basis a year after I bought it, it graduates to “must have”. Let’s see if I’m still as enthusiastic about it in January 2015…

The End of the Line

TimeZero is GRAmel’s time travel setting. I’m not sure yet if I will run it, but I enjoyed reading it and enjoy thinking about the possibilities. Of these, the questions that intrigue me the most are:

  • What is really going on in the 45th century and beyond?
  • Who are the Priors?
  • What does the Triad want?

These questions are part of the central mystery of TimeZero, and the setting as written leaves them open – presumably so that the Game Master can answer them however he wishes for his own campaign. Here are some possibilities that occurred to me:

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU

“You will be inserted via Time Gate into this storeroom at midnight on July 7th, 3505 AD, plus or minus 12 hours as usual. At precisely 12:38 and 7 seconds, you will leave the storeroom and proceed 15 meters along this corridor to the door on the left; you have exactly 19 seconds to reach the door, circumvent the lock leaving no evidence whatsoever, pass through the door and close it behind you. On no account go down the side corridor on your right, which you must cross no earlier than 12:38 and 14 seconds, and no later than 12:38 and 17 seconds…”

Remember the Timewatch motto? “If it is written in the history books, then so it must be.”

As technology advances, the history books turn into databases with more and more details about more and more people. Timewatch Operatives are recruited from people who won’t be missed, and do their jobs in the grey areas of unrecorded history.

Near Future missions must be planned and executed with extreme precision, so that the Operatives are never in view of people, synths or surveillance cameras; this is the reason that they are so much more tightly controlled than missions to earlier eras, and may be the reason Timewatch has synth agents in the first place, as synths find this level of control easier to deal with than humans.

By the 45th century, everything is recorded; there are no people who won’t be missed, and there are no grey areas. Both the need for, and possibility of, Timewatch missions disappear under ever-present surveillance – indeed, this may be the reason for that surveillance.

In this version of events, the Priors are an agency of a far-future government which most players would think of as a police state; the Triad is a dissident faction which acts to prevent that government from taking power, restoring freedom and power to the people. As it watches everyone, all the time, the government knows about the Triad; but the Triad cannot simply be eliminated, because recorded history says it exists… so if the players are ever in a position to do so, the Priors will prevent them.

ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

“For every person, every species, there is a time to move on; or if you prefer, to move aside and let someone else try.”

In the 45th century, the Earth and humanity as we understand it have ceased to exist. Whether because of the Rapture, the Singularity, because people have “ascended” to become godlike beings of pure energy, or simply because the human race has had its time and died out, there’s nobody left.

Timewatch doesn’t need to run missions to protect the timeline from that point on, because there is nothing left to protect; once humanity reaches that point, it’s over.

In this vision of the future, the Priors are the last ones out of the building, making sure the lights are turned off and the doors are locked… and making sure it was set up correctly in the first place, by ensuring that the timeline includes everything and everyone needed for it to come into existence. The Triad don’t want to go wherever all the others are going, and don’t want anyone else to go there either.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS I

“What does the Triad want? Our freedom. No more than that. Most of you would say that is our right.”

One philosophical theory is that our reality is a simulation of some kind, being run for unknown purposes by an outside agency. This version of the simulation hypothesis assumes that the simulation is a research tool; each alternate timeline is a different version of the experiment. Time machines are ways to hack the code of the simulation, allowing the software agents who think they are sentient beings to move along the experimental timeline or to move between different versions of the experiment.

Time does not exist beyond the 45th century, because that is the end of the simulation run. The Priors are software agents programmed with the knowledge of what is really going on, and loyal to the scientists running the simulation; their purpose is to eliminate the emergent behaviour inevitable in such a complex system, so that the experiment is not spoiled.  The Triad is headed by a group of former Priors intent on escaping from the simulation into whatever network or system may be beyond. Quite how their activities help them to do this is unclear.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS II

“What does the Triad want? We just want to make things a little more… interesting…”

Most of our simulations are games or entertainments of some other kind, so it’s reasonable to assume that if we live in a simulation, it is a game as well. In this answer to the central questions, the 45th century is the end of the game, the Priors are the game moderators, and those special people the Old Man is so intent on protecting are the players, although he may not know this.

And the Triad? The Triumvirate has guessed what is going on, and is playing a game within a game. Since they will cease to exist when the game ends, they want to prolong it as much as they can. This means they must challenge the players enough to keep them interested, but not so much that the players become frustrated and give up or band together to wipe out the Triad. So, Triad activities will disrupt the timeline, but never disastrously; if it seems the timeline will be wiped out, the Triad itself may join with the heroes to correct things.

-o0o-

My favourite is the first one, but I think it would be very hard to GM. What do you think, dear readers? What are your answers to these mysteries?

SFC Comparative Tech Levels

Here’s the first bit of experimenting with the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion; I wanted to see how the technology levels in the World Maker stack up against the character rules and other games. Traveller’s view on what TL counts as high, low and middle varies from edition to edition; the Traveller entries here are taken from my slightly foxed copy of Supplement 3, The Spinward Marches.

SFC TL Description Hindrance Traveller SWN
1 Stone Age - 0 0
2-3 Middle Ages - 1 1
4-5 Renaissance - 2 -
6-8 21st Century Low Tech (Major)* 7*** 3-ish
9-11 Below Average Low Tech (Minor) 10 -
12-16 Average None 11-12 4
17-18 Slightly Above Average High Tech (Minor) 13-14 4+
19 Sig. Above Average High Tech (Major) 15 5
20 Incomprehensible Ultra Tech** 16+ -

* I’m guessing here, but it’s a logical extrapolation of the other Hindrances.
** Yes, all right, not strictly a Hindrance but you know what I mean.
*** I know officially CT would place us at TL 9+, but I’ll believe that when I can buy an air/raft or a jump drive.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll do with this yet. Mainly, it helps me place things in context using other rules I understand better.

Review: SW Sci Fi Companion

I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time! The Sci Fi Companion is a Savage Worlds supplement which expands the Deluxe core rules to cover the science fiction genre. That gives it a lot of ground to cover, from Grey Lensman to Accelerando, from Star Wars to Gattaca, from Doctor Who to Person of Interest… Let’s take a look inside and see how well it does…

CONTENTS

Characters (10 pages): This chapter includes the introduction, then moves on to a point-buy race builder much like the one in the Deluxe Edition, but with more detailed and better laid out explanations of positive and negative abilities. The abilities themselves seem much the same.

There are then 13 sample races, which at first glance seemed to include half-a-dozen repeats of races in the core rulebook; but when I read the detail I could see that apart from humans, they have been built differently. Avions, for example, have the same name and retain the Flight and Hollow Boned abilities, but now gain an extra Agility die step and the Low-G Worlder Hindrance.

The races are aquarians (a bit like Atlanteans from the core rulebook), aurax (kinda-sorta centaurs), avions, constructs (a bit like androids), deaders (slug parasites that "wear" dead human bodies), florans (plant people), humans (look in the mirror), insectoids (ant-mantis-human hybrids), kalians (four-armed, agile humanoids), rakashans (almost identical to the core rulebook version), saurians (changed a bit from the core rules), Serrans (the inevitable telepathic humanoids, although at least they aren’t specifically smug tree-huggers who turn their backs on That Evil Technology), and yetis (big, furry, would do for Wookiees at a pinch).

There are 7 new Hindrances; the one that grabbed my attention was Low Tech/High tech, available in major and minor versions. This Hindrance effectively gives a range of 5 tech levels – major low, minor low, average, minor high and major high – by giving the character penalties on using gear that’s not at the campaign’s average tech level, whatever that is.

New edges next; there are 7 of those too, including Heavy-G Worlder (Low-G and Zero-G Worlder are Hindrances). I like Geared Up best; you get $10,000 of starting gear each time you take it, but this is a one-time benefit like using a skill point to take more starting cash; lose it and it’s gone.

Notice, no new skills or changes to existing ones. Not that I mind. Although Knowledge (Astrogation) turns up in the Starships chapter, later on.

Gear (13 pages): In addition to the 5 tech levels implied by Hindrances, the gear chapter introduces a sixth – Ultra Tech, for game-changing advanced technology. After a short discussion of various methods for tracking ammo, we move on into the gear list, which is divided into personal equipment (the usual suspects, except this is the first time I’ve seen a 3D printer as something PCs can buy), armour (including Ultra-Tech personal force fields), and weapons; disintegrators, flamers, flechette guns, gyrojets, lasers (slightly different to the ones in the core rules), particle accelerators/blasters, plasma guns, rocket launchers, stun guns, high-tech versions of yer basic slugthrowers, and vehicular weapons from MGs to heavy torpedoes and mass drivers. Most of this section is weapon stats, but that is because weapons have more stats than most gear.

Throughout, gear uses the normal SW approach; what it does is specified, how it does that is left up to the GM.

Setting Rules (3 pages): This chapter has rules for different types of atmospheres, gravity, hacking, salvage and trade. Hacking in SFC is either a straight skill roll or a dramatic task; if you want more than that, you’re advised to get Interface Zero (which is lurking on my hard drive somewhere, and may get reviewed one day).

Cyberware (3 pages): Here we find a new derived attribute, Strain, which is two plus half the lower of your Spirit or Vigour and defines how much cyberware you can implant; install more and you get permanent Fatigue levels. That’s the first page of this section; pages two and three are cyberware enhancements such as communicators, subdermal armour, built-in weapons and so forth.

Power Armour (4 pages): This part of the book introduces Mods. Various vehicles, robots etc. are built by taking a basic chassis, which has a Mods rating, and adding components which each require a number of Mods points, until you run out of Mods rating, money or imagination. There are three basic chassis for powered armour, 17 optional components, and half-a-dozen pre-worked examples. I immediately started thinking about how to represent suits from favourite games and fictional works in game terms, which is a good sign.

Robots (4 pages): Same story; basic chassis with Mods points, 21 optional components costing Mods points, four worked examples. Setting rules for repairs, maintenance, glitches for unmaintained robots. Robots are essentially customisable Extras, or Wild Cards if you pay the extra for that.

Starships (11 pages): There are 6 basic hulls, rated like vehicles in the core rules, with Mods points used in the usual way for combinations of 28 optional components. There are rules for fuel costs, provisions, repairs, crew wages, hyperspace travel, and starship combat (a modified version of the core Chase rules, which is how I would’ve done it myself). There are guidelines for using miniatures for ship combat, too. 13 example ships are provided, as are guidelines for how much ship a group of PCs should start with, if you want to do that (I probably would).

Hyperspace deserves a more detailed look. A jump requires a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll and can take you anywhere, although jumps within a solar system are easier and jumps to another galaxy are harder; they take 2d6 days, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to go faster. Essentially, all star systems in the same galaxy are the same distance apart; goodbye star maps, hello intriguing implications for galactic politics (of which more perhaps in a later post).

Vehicles (7 pages): Are rated, unsurprisingly, like vehicles. Again, they have Mods ratings and 35 optional components to consume them; there are six basic chassis, rated only by size, since how they move (jets, tracks, antigrav) are covered by Mods. There are rules for tracking ammo and fuel, and guidelines for the budget a group might have if the game will revolve around vehicle combat. There are 18 sample vehicles, ranging from dirt bikes to shielded hovertanks.

Walkers (5 pages): Get yer mechs here. They are built much like power armour, but are bigger (up to 50′ tall). Three types of chassis, 18 optional components, six example mechs, special rules for mech combat – notably that these compartmentalised behemoths can never suffer more than two wounds from an attack, whatever the damage result is.

World Maker (4 pages): Random tables for generating planets; gravity, dominant terrain type, atmosphere, population density, government, law level, customs (which may apply only to specific groups), spaceport, technology level.

Travelers & Xenos (30 pages): Stock NPCs and alien animals, each with a short description and a statblock. Includes psi-knights (*cough* Jedi *cough*), variant swarms, and a couple of example empires and organisations as well as individual foes – nice touch, that.

…and we close with an index.

FORMAT

Full colour cover; layered PDF (huzzah!) so you can suppress the foreground, background, text, illustrations or guides/grids individually. If you like, I guess you can suppress them all and get blank pages… anyway, behind all the layout and illos is black on white two-column text in readable fonts.

Gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

What happens when a character with High Tech (Major) tries to use stuff made on a world where everyone has Low Tech (Minor)? I’d probably stack the penalties so he’s working at -6.

I really like the idea of rating starships like characters, and making them a playable race as High-Space does; so I would have voted to include that. However, Pinnacle took a conscious decision not to go down that route – fair enough, it’s their game.

CONCLUSIONS

This book replaces the earlier SF Toolkits, in the same way that the Fantasy Companion replaced the Fantasy Toolkits. Likewise, it takes a more prescriptive approach to genre specifics than the toolkits did.

How does it do at covering the vast playground of SF? Well, it’s tightly focussed on space opera, and it does a good job of that; if you want to game Aliens, Babylon 5, Star Wars, Star Frontiers, Traveller and so forth, you can, but the SFC doesn’t go far beyond the space opera niche. Neither do I, to be fair, so I’m happy with it; but if that’s not your goal, you might be better served by something else – probably something that isn’t the fast, furious pulpiness of Savage Worlds.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I’m not playing much at the moment, but I expect to have fun shortly with the various vehicle and powered armour sections. Watch this space!

Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier that it’s a 98 page PDF and currently costs $14.99.

CODA

At the same time, Pinnacle has released the second edition of the Super Powers Companion. Supers aren’t my cup of tea; I reckon anyone who works all day at a normal job, then dresses up in skin-tight spandex and goes out at night looking for like-minded individuals to beat up, is somebody with serious psychological problems, superpowers or not. So if I were to run a supers game, it would be inspired by Watchmen or The Boys rather than Superman or the Avengers. That aside, be aware that the SPC is now available if that floats your boat, and it seems to be quite tightly integrated with the SF Companion.

Review: Legends of Steel

I really ought to stop buying Savage Worlds settings. I have something like 30 of them now, of which I have actually run a campaign in, errm, well, one actually.

I had a sort of plan here though; since the Dread Sea Dominions of Beasts & Barbarians has an ocean to the left of the map, and Erisa in Legends of Steel has an ocean to the right, I thought of this:

Erisa Big ocean thingy Dread Sea Dominions

It’ll probably never get used, but maybe someday… Anyway, on with the motley.

In a Nutshell: Sword & Sorcery setting for Savage Worlds. 70 page PDF. This is one of the Evil DM’s home campaigns done as a setting book. If SW isn’t your thing, there are also versions for other RPGs; Barbarians of Lemuria, Broadsword, and ZeFRS (a retroclone of TSR’s Conan RPG).

CONTENT

Introduction (1 page): Quite possibly the shortest I’ve ever seen in a book like this, largely because it assumes I already know what roleplaying games are. Moving on…

Player’s Section (19 pages): This begins by setting the tone – or rather, recommending that the group agrees what kind of sword & sorcery they’re playing, choosing from 1930s pulp fiction, 1970s comic books, 1980s movies and cartoons, 1990s TV shows. The default setting, Erisa, is a mixture of the comic book and cartoon versions.

Players are encouraged not to limit themselves to barbarian warriors, but to consider their PCs’ background, motivation for adventuring, race, age and so on. The best advice and examples given are for motivations.

Character creation is largely unchanged from SW core, and blurs into setting rules; there are four of these:

  • PCs start at Seasoned, not Novice. My first thought was “Oh no, not again”, but the author, Jeff Mejia, points out that protagonists in the genre are generally famous veterans when we first meet them.
  • There are no Rank requirements for Edges. Want to have a sidekick and loyal followers at Seasoned? Go for it.
  • Wild Cards are never considered unarmed, even if all they have is their bare hands. I quite like this idea, it underscores the general badassery of the sword & sorcery hero.
  • PCs with an Arcane Background are limited to Novice rank powers. This is because in the genre, any halfway decent wizard is a hostile, evil NPC. (The author argues at several points in the book that a pure sword & sorcery campaign would have no PC spellcasters at all.)

There are a handful of setting-specific Knowledge skills; Etiquette, Heraldry, Legends and Lore, Military Training, and Religion. I’d be tempted to call all of those Common Knowledge myself.

As usual in a setting book, there is a range of new Edges (about 30 of them), and some tweaks to the standard ones (four of these, I think). I especially like the tweak for Attractive and Very Attractive; in addition to the Charisma bonus in the core rules, a character with one of these Edges always looks good, whatever has just happened to them – this explains why the sword & sorcery movie heroine has freshly-applied makeup and stylish hair at all times, and why the mud on the hero’s costume disappears between scenes. Of the new Edges, the one that intrigues me most is Birthright, which allows the PC to begin with a family heirloom of some power, effectively a magic item. Not sure I’d let one start with a flying ship, though.

Unusually, there are no new Hindrances. Character generation closes with another good idea, references; these are three statements about your character made by minor NPCs, for example Arik the Barber may say the PC is a jealous type who assaults anyone insulting his lady friend.

Next is a section on the style of play appropriate for the genre; everything, including the heroes, is in shades of grey; money and equipment are largely irrelevant, as there is always a half-eaten body with what you need on it lying around, or a patron who will equip you for the mission. The author points out that the hero’s motivation is usually wealth, but he rarely becomes wealthy; a wealthy hero is a retired hero, and a retired hero is bored – and boring.

From the GM’s perspective, the genre is built around the short story or single issue of a comic book; there are no long story arcs, just individual adventures. The GM is advised to work within the framework of the pulp short story, make things thrilling, rewarding and heroic, capture heroes rather than kill them, and make extensive use of outrageous coincidences. Magic items should be rare and unique. Everything, in fact, that I love about sword & sorcery.

Taverns get special attention, as that is where the PCs will spend most of their time off-duty, and consequently is where they will be most often recruited. Naturally, this leads into setting rules for over-indulgence.

Campaign Section (35 pages): This is essentially a gazetteer of the world of Erisa, with a full-colour map and details of a score of locations, usually provinces or cities rather than nations.

Each location has about a page dedicated to it. There is a short description, followed by brief discussions of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; it would be easy to extract adventure seeds from the opportunities or threats, while the strengths and weaknesses are more about what the place is like.

In addition, there are capsule summaries of another score of minor locations – forests, swamps and the like. These are followed by two pages discussing the gods and goddesses of the region, at roughly one paragraph per deity.

River Pirates of the Belsa (5 pages): Here’s the obligatory introductory adventure. Dagoberto the merchant wants revenge, and hires the PCs to infiltrate the pirate gang which killed his son and assassinate their leader for him. Unusually, most of the word count is devoted to the personalities in the gang, with the plotline taking second place.

Sample Characters (6 pages): There are half dozen of these; Anteus the gladiator, Brother Stern the warrior priest, De Silva the sorceror, Risa the mercenary archer, Talena the pirate, Talon Ironhawk the exiled prince. They are all at Veteran Rank, so perhaps better suited as NPCs than PCs, unless you want to run a Veteran level one-shot.

FORMAT

Full-colour cover, looking for all the world like a comic book cover, wrapped around single-column black text on white with greyscale illustrations – almost all of these are in the Campaign section.

There is a separate printer-friendly PDF delivered with the main one, although that is relatively printer-friendly itself, and the download also includes a TIFF file of the world map. That would be useful if I wanted to mark up with map with things of my own, as I often do.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The book would benefit from an editor or proofreader looking it over. There are a number of grammatical errors and inconsistencies in layout. It sounds petty, but these bring me to a grinding halt every time I find one.

There’s no Gear chapter, which doesn’t bother me; what does the sword & sorcery hero need besides a horse and a sharp blade? Both of those are in the core rules already. However, there is no bestiary either; I was hoping I might see stats for at least the reptile men the iconic heroes are fighting on the front cover. I guess I would just reskin orcs for those.

CONCLUSIONS

With its cinematic combat and larger than life heroes, Savage Worlds is well-suited to the sword & sorcery genre. That genre is an exercise in a limited palette; PCs are human, sorcerors are evil NPCs, monsters are more likely to be prehistoric reptiles or animated statues than orcs and goblins. Legends of Steel is essentially a set of GM’s notes on how to evoke that genre, with a setting in which to do so, drawn with very broad strokes; it reads like a collection of blog posts, which I suppose is probably what it started out as.

I can’t help comparing this to Beasts & Barbarians Golden Edition, which is about twice the price, but three times the page count, with a richer and more detailed setting, and ongoing support in the form of adventures short and long. For what you get, I think Legends of Steel is overpriced; I can’t help feeling a little disappointed with it.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

Shadows of Keron Episode 29: The Death of Kumal the Smiling

Yes, it had to happen: Kumal’s luck finally ran out.

This was an improvised scenario aimed at switching the narrative track towards Caldeia, where I intend to run the Kithtakharos adventures next. Sitting down at the table, I pulled together a number of leftover plot threads – campaigns start to write themselves after a while. So there were undead guardians, a Daughter of Hordan, a handsome slave in vigorous good health, a Valkyrie, assorted Valk on warponies, a dark and stormy night, and a cave.

"We are NOT going in that cave," said the Warforged. "There’s always something nasty in caves."

Deftly bypassing the cave (and its undead guardians), the party treks on through the night and the pouring rain.

At length, they come upon an encampment, with a couple of dozen Valk and their tents, the leaders debating something with a Valkyrie. The Warforged hates Valk, and is all for slaughtering them on the spot. Nessime takes a more reasoned approach, and being unsure what to do, consults the Hindrances on her character sheet as I often counsel players to do in these situations.

  • Heroic. Are the Valk in trouble? No, so Nessime does not have to help them.
  • Loyal: Friends. Are the Valk her friends? No, so this Hindrance doesn’t come into play.
  • Vow: Fight evil until the last fire goes out (she is a paladin of Hulian, in effect). Are the Valk evil? Well… they worship demons. They speak the same language as demons. Close enough.

They approach stealthily, and The Warforged opens hostilities with a Fear spell. All the lesser Valk and the warponies flee in panic, but by virtue of not running away, the Valkyrie reveals herself to be a Wild Card. Gutz then taunts her something rotten, one of his favourite tactics, and she becomes Shaken. This buys the party enough time to drop an overpowered Blast spell on her, killing her outright despite the liberal application of GM Bennies.

Searching the wreckage, they discover a slave hiding in the Valkyrie’s tent, which also contains a map, a half-written letter, and a strange leathery object somewhat bigger than a football.

"Do you have a name?" asked Nessime.

"Yes, ma’am," replied the now-freed slave. "Antaeus."

"Oh you poor thing," she said. "I am so sorry."

This leaves Antaeus in a state of confusion, little knowing that throughout the campaign the only NPCs to survive encounters with the party have been those without names (and Kumal the Smiling); having a name ensures NPC death, or so the party now believes.

Antaeus declines to join the party, even after gifts of weapons and armour, but does agree to travel with them to the next town, wherever that might be. He explains that he was a prisoner of war from the Kyrosian rebellion the PCs fought in some time ago, sold as a slave and passed from merchant to merchant until the Valk picked him up. Had they kept on with this line of questioning they might have learned something truly useful, but since it’s not something Antaeus wants to talk about he doesn’t volunteer it. The party instead becomes distracted by the map and letter. The letter is apparently from the Valkyrie to someone called Baltazar, which several of the party recognised as a Tricarnian name, explaining that she has the object he seeks and is bringing it to him in Caldeia. (Gutz immediately reasons that this must be the leathery object, and it is therefore valuable and should be carried off.) The map is interesting partly because it exactly matches the map Gutz liberated from his erstwhile colleagues early in the campaign, which he was told by said colleagues showed the location of a great treasure, and partly because it has little pictures of Warforged on it, in the Caldeian swamps.

By now the party is getting the idea, and decides to press on south towards Caldeia. They come to a river, and determine (rightly) that if they follow it downstream they should come to the swamps. After a little while, they encounter the warponies, who have somehow got onto the other side of the river. There is much debate about how to cross the river to get to them, but at length this plan is abandoned.

A little while later, they encounter the Valk, who are looking for their warponies. Now that it is daylight, Kumal the Smiling (for it is he) recognises his opponents. He bullies the other Valk into attacking the party (because he hates them), then attempts to sneak off (because he is terrified of The Warforged, and not without reason).

Outnumbered three to one by dismounted nomad archers, the party is undaunted. The Warforged fires off his signature Blast spell against Kumal, and incinerates him, again despite GM Bennies.

Gutz takes a moment to honour the memory of a worthy foe, while Nessime uses Beast Friend and an excellent Persuasion roll to convince a swarm of nearby meerkats that the Valk are attempting to steal their territory. Two of them fall under a whirlwind of tiny teeth, claws, and offers of cheap warpony insurance.

Gutz drops a couple with arrows, The Warforged barrels into the closest group and whacks them silly with his Enchanted Sorceror’s Frying Pan, and once they reach 70% casualties the survivors break and run.

Antaeus is volunteered to pick up and carry the loot (mostly composite bows), since the party forgot he was there and didn’t use him in the fight. (He was quite happy with that, and they didn’t seem to need his help.)

It is without further incident that the group travels downriver into the swamps, to the sleepy village of Kithtakharos, which I must now read up on.

If you have worked out what that leathery object is, don’t tell them, it’ll spoil the surprise.